The problem

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AS Indiaís relations with Pakistan hit turbulence under the government of Narendra Modi, it is possible to argue that the two nations are witnessing more than a temporary pause in the peace process. Some would suggest an important era in the bilateral relations might be coming to an end and that a phase of considerable uncertainty awaits the subcontinent.

Narendra Modi, who has a long record of demonizing Pakistan and its rulers, did seem to temper his rhetoric during the election campaign of 2014. He surprised the world by inviting all leaders from the neighbourhood, including Pakistan, to attend the launch of his prime ministership. The positive response from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seemed to set the stage for a productive engagement between two leaders with strong political mandates. These hopes soon began to fade with the mounting tensions on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and Delhiís decision to call off talks after Pakistanís decision to engage the leaders of the Kashmiri separatists.

Modiís Delhi is signalling that it will no longer be business as usual with Pakistan. The message is that the NDA government is willing to move expeditiously on economic cooperation but will respond vigorously to any provocations on the security front. Pakistan, however, is not ready to accept what it sees as an attempt to unilaterally revise the terms of engagement between the two countries that emerged at the turn of the 1990s. Three governments of very different political orientation in Delhi led by Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh chose to sustain the talks with Pakistan, despite the frequent military and political crises, and explore pathways for normalizing the bilateral relationship.

If Modiís attempt to recraft the negotiating framework with Pakistan is indeed bold, it is by no means clear if Delhi has the power to enforce it. The attempt itself has turned out to be controversial at home and could push the bilateral relationship into uncharted waters. Delhiís rethink on the relations with Islamabad is complicated by significant changes in Pakistanís international relations, the regional context and internal turmoil. The passion in Indiaís arguments with Pakistan, however, is not matched by an in-depth knowledge about the new forces shaping our neighbour to the West.

This issue of Seminar is based on the conviction that understanding Pakistan on its own terms is critical for devising sustainable policies towards Pakistan. It explores the range of factors affecting Pakistanís internal and external orientation and their consequences for India.

In the last few years, the international community has rapidly drawn down its military presence in Afghanistan and will now limit itself to military training and assistance to the Afghan security forces. This new situation leaves the Pakistan Army as the most potent future actor in Afghanistan. How it uses this leverage is likely to have great impact on the neighbouring regions in South West Asia, Central Asia and the subcontinent. The army and the strategic community in Pakistan have always been acutely conscious of the nationís geopolitical significance, but rarely managed to turn it to the countryís long-term advantage. Instead, they have tended to allow geopolitical adventurism to undermine its internal stability.

Since 2001, Pakistan has been a frontline state in the US-led Global War on Terror. It had played an equally central role in the American efforts to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Pakistanís role as a frontline state for America has helped propel its army as a major arbiter in the region, but this has come at a significant cost for its own domestic politics and internal security situation. Pakistanís army leadership has often said in recent years that the gravest threats to its security are internal. These assertions, however, have not really translated into significant policy changes.

As the US finally withdraws from the region, there are questions about the future trajectory of US-Pakistan relations. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, and the subsequent termination of Russian aid to Afghanistan by 1992, also saw a sharp decline in American support for Pakistan. While the sources of terrorism from Pakistan will remain a major concern for the United States, Washington is deeply frustrated by its inability to move Islamabad towards political moderation and economic modernization despite nearly $ 25 billion in military and economic assistance and the prolonged drone warfare in its tribal regions.

As the US pulls back, there are interesting questions on how China might step into this breach. Despite Chinaís unique role in Pakistan as the all-weather friend and a reliable partner in balancing China, Beijing was never the main force driving the geopolitics of Pakistan. That position was reserved for the United States. Amidst the diminishing political will in the United States to persist with prolonged involvement in distant theatres, a rising Chinaís role in defining Pakistanís regional policies is likely to grow.

Meanwhile Pakistan is being drawn into the unfolding rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. The two leading Islamic states, one a major benefactor to Pakistan and the other an important neighbour, are likely to promote and constrain Islamabadís regional policies. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq casts an even darker shadow over Pakistan.

On the face of it, Pakistan says a stable Afghanistan is in its own interest, pointing out that turbulence across the Durand Line will only help further radicalize the militant groups in Pakistan. The new government in Kabul is eager to engage Islamabad and end the civil war in Afghanistan with Pakistanís help. Former President Hamid Karzai tried much the same without commensurate success. A framework that simultaneously secures Pakistanís legitimate interests across the Durand Line and strengthens Afghanistanís territorial sovereignty has been elusive. The inability to resolve that tension exacerbates the ethnic, religious and sectarian divisions in both countries and beyond.

Within Pakistan, the army and the political classes have long instrumentalized Islamism in the pursuit of their political ends at home and abroad. But the militant groups appear to have gained an agency of their own in the domestic politics of Pakistan and its foreign policy. The political class and the military establishment have been deeply divided on how to cope with the growing militancy at home and few in the world are willing to bet that Pakistan can prevail over these groups while supporting those serving its presumed interests in Afghanistan and India.

There was widespread hope that Nawaz Sharifís electoral victory in June 2013 would mark Pakistanís definitive transition towards democracy, expand the weight of the civilian governments, and improve its economic prospects. Those hopes have taken a big beating with the deepening domestic political instability in the last few months.

As one of the worldís most populous countries with a powerful army, a fast growing nuclear arsenal, a thin but talented elite, and a significant geopolitical location enters a complex phase in its political life, Delhi needs less incendiary rhetoric and more informed discussion in coping with the consequences of the turbulence next door. This issue of Seminar contributes to that debate.